United States immigration laws regulate how people born in a foreign country can become United States citizens. These laws also regulate the conditions under which non-citizens may reside in the United States, either temporarily or permanently.

What is an Immigrant?

An immigrant is an individual born in a foreign country that now resides in the United States. Some immigrants are citizens. These immigrants have obtained citizenship (have become “naturalized”) by passing a citizenship test, and meeting other legal requirements.

Immigrants in the United States who are not citizens are referred to as aliens. Aliens who are permanent U.S. residents are referred to as resident aliens. These individuals are referred to as lawful permanent residents. Aliens who are temporarily in the United States for a specific lawful purpose are referred to as temporary resident aliens.

Some aliens reside in the United States unlawfully. These individuals are referred to as illegal (or unlawful) immigrants.

What Does a Non-Citizen Need to Live in the United States?

The immigration laws of the United States require that non-citizens who live here apply for and receive a visa. A visa is an immigration document that allows a person to lawfully reside in the United States. To live here, a non-citizen needs either an immigrant visa, or a non-immigrant visa. 

What is an Immigrant Visa?

An immigrant visa is issued to an individual who intends to live and work permanently in the United States. To apply for an immigrant visa, the foreign national typically must be “sponsored.” Typically, a relative or employer sponsors the individual, by filing an application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Certain applicants for an immigrant visa may “self-sponsor.” This means that they may file the immigrant visa application on their own behalf. These applicants include (among others) such as workers with extraordinary ability, and investors.

Once a sponsor or self-sponsor files the application, the application is processed and the immigrant visa is issued. Once the immigrant visa and supporting paperwork is reviewed and endorsed by an officer of the U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the immigrant becomes a lawful permanent resident. 

Lawful permanent residents (LPRs) are also known as “green card” holders. Green card holders may:

  • Accept an offer of employment without special restrictions;
  • Own property;
  • Receive financial assistance at public colleges and universities; and
  • Join the Armed Forces. 

Lawful permanent residents may also apply to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain eligibility requirements. 

What is a Non-Immigrant Visa?

Under the U.S. immigration laws, nonimmigrant visas are issued to individuals seeking to enter the United States on a temporary basis. Individuals may seek to enter the U.S. temporarily for certain kinds of work, as well as for tourism, business, and medical treatment.

The type of nonimmigrant visa an individual must apply for is defined by the U.S. immigration laws. Individuals may apply for a business nonimmigrant (B1) or tourist (B2) visa. 

Individuals seeking to enter the United States to study or work may require certain authorization or documentation before they can apply for a nonimmigrant visa. After the visa has been issued, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will conduct an inspection to determine if the individual may be admitted under U.S. immigration laws. Individuals who “pass” the inspection may then reside in the U.S. for the temporary purpose.

How Does an Immigrant Become a Citizen?

An immigrant becomes a citizen through a process called naturalization. To be eligible for naturalization, an individual must:

  • Be at least 18 years old;
  • Obtain a green card to obtain permanent resident status;
  • Possess the green card for at least five years;
  • Have lived in the U.S. continuously for five years before filing an application for naturalization;
  • Have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months out of the 5 years before filing the application for naturalization;
  • File the application for naturalization;
    • Applicants must live within the state of residence for at least 3 months prior to the date of filing the application;
  • Pass the citizenship interview;
    • The citizenship interview consists of review of the application, and a naturalization test. This test is commonly referred to as the “citizenship test.” The exam covers an individual’s knowledge of language (reading, writing, and speaking English) and civics (U.S. history, government, and culture); and 
  • Take the Oath of Allegiance at a citizenship ceremony (also called a naturalization ceremony).

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help with U.S. Immigration Laws?

If you want to obtain a visa, or want to become a naturalized citizen, you should consult an immigration attorney. An experienced immigration lawyer can explain the requirements to obtain a visa. This lawyer can also explain the requirements to become a naturalized citizen. 

The lawyer can assist you with filing visa or naturalization applications, and can answer any questions you may have about the process of obtaining a visa, or becoming a naturalized citizen.